The Capitol Hill Club is the kind of Washington haunt where such VIPs as George Bush and Henry Kissinger hobnob over succulent breast of pheasant and lobster pie. Most visitors—and many of the members—would be astonished to learn that a half dozen of the chefs who turn out these gourmet delights are apron-clad ex-cons. They are graduates of what is believed to be the nation’s first prison culinary-arts apprenticeship program, an innovative course that turns cons into cooks. Under the guidance of William E. Smith, a former White House cook, jailbirds in the District of Columbia’s prison in Lorton, Va., 27 miles outside Washington, are learning to cook in a three-year, five-hour-a-week program. Since 1980 the project has landed 26 ex-cons in local restaurants, where they are earning up to about $1,200 a month—not a lot, but a nice raise from the $6.50 a month they got at Lorton.
“We try to get the message across,” Smith says dryly, “that knives are the tools of our trade, not murder weapons.” Just in case the message doesn’t get across, the knives are collected at the end of every class, counted twice and locked in a safe.
The inmates of Lorton could hardly have a better qualified teacher. A 1943 graduate of the U.S. Navy’s culinary school, Smith, 62, worked as a White House cook for Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. “Truman had simple tastes,” he recalls. “Eisenhower was more of a sophisticated eater. He enjoyed ‘chuckers’—Pennsylvania woodchucks covered with cherry sauce.” After retiring from the Navy in 1963, Smith held a variety of jobs, including cooking up parties for Winston Churchill, Princess Grace and Vince Lombardi, and three years ago started teaching at the Culinary School of Washington. He added the Lorton assignment last year, when Isaiah Johnson, 60, who founded the cooking school in 1975, moved on to administer all D.C. inmate apprenticeship programs. Smith prepares his students (he currently has 23 and about 100 on a waiting list) to make dinner for as many as 350 people. They must master the subtleties of Chinese, Japanese and French cuisine, and he grills them on 29 pages of French terms used in cooking. At least as impressive as their acquired culinary skill is the fact that only two of the 26 grads have gone back to jail. (The recidivism rate in the D.C. prison system runs at about 44 percent.)
Smith admits he was leery at first about taking on a bunch of tough guys behind bars. “I thought some of these guys might get mad and kill me,” he says. “Now, fear is the furthest thing from my mind. The men look out for me. I’ve never seen a knife fight or even heard an argument from the men in here. My biggest problem is a guy putting too much salt in the cookies.”
“Mr. Smith is a beautiful person,” says Wyatt Earp Price-Bey, 27, who was released from Lorton seven months ago after serving three years for burglary and is now finishing his studies at the Culinary School of Washington. “Some instructors hoot and holler if you do something wrong, but he wants you to make the mistakes, to learn how to correct them.”
Much of the credit for the prison cooking school’s success also goes to Ted Miller, 41, the English-born manager of the Capitol Hill Club who has championed the program. “Someone had to take the flying leap,” he says. “My father died in prison [on a bad-check charge], so I had good reason to care.” Miller donated used kitchen equipment, spent Saturdays tutoring inmates and convinced fellow restaurateurs that they wouldn’t get burned by the Lorton chefs.
Miller concedes that as yet the Lorton grads lack the hands-on experience to be first-class chefs. “Many of the guys just haven’t seen quails’ eggs before,” he says. But no cooks take fiercer pride in their work. When alums caught one of their own stealing steaks from the Capitol Hill Club, they chased him out into the street. “I never had to fire him,” says Miller. “The guys would have killed him if he ever came back. Their attitude was that he was jeopardizing the one thing that was helping them get their act together. As far as they were concerned, he was dead meat.”
“It’s an honor to serve some of the important people here,” says Alvin Carroll, 36, who did 9½ years for armed robbery and has been the Capitol Hill Club’s assistant purchasing agent since graduating from Lorton five years ago. “It’s easy to put a pistol in somebody’s face to rob them. This is hard work, but I don’t mind doing it. If it wasn’t for the school, I might be back on the streets doing what I was sent in for. I’m just happy to be on the outside, tasting freedom.”